Leading the Nation’s Preclinical Vivarium Market
Explora BioLabs provides preclinical, AAALAC-accredited vivarium space and related services to biotech clients in development stages from early startup to maturity. With nearly 200,000 square feet of space across 18 locations in biotech-dense communities, the company prides itself on providing clients the ability to initiate preclinical in vivo programs in as little as two weeks with Ph.D.-backed husbandry management and crucial regulatory oversight. Big4Bio recently spoke with Explora CEO Nathaniel “Sandy” Paige about the rapid expansion of Explora’s Vivarium-as-a-Service™ solutions and how the company is streamlining early-stage preclinical research.
Q: Explora has opened seven new facilities in the past 18 months (in San Diego, San Francisco, and Boston). In addition, it recently acquired a vivarium service provider in Boston. How has Explora maintained such a high level of growth in that time?
A: We’ve been the nation’s leading provider of contract vivaria and services—what we call Vivarium-as-a-Service™—for nearly 20 years. We maintained our growth largely through our experience in anticipating and then rapidly responding to meet demand in the key life science clusters of San Diego, San Francisco, and now Boston.
Initially, at least, most of this growth has been within two service lines. The first is what we call OnDemand, where we provide research-ready vivaria for clients to use along with managing the husbandry, regulatory, and facility services. The second is called OnSite, where we provide the staffing, equipment, and materials for companies that have a private vivarium, or want to build one. Those two service lines have seen significant expansion, primarily because they align with the needs of a growing biotech sector that needs to move quickly. We help them with those services, in a manner that is more efficient, less costly, and with less business risk than they could do on their own. Plus, we offer experienced contract research services that wrap around the OnDemand and OnSite services to further support our clients’ needs if they’d rather we do the in vivo rodent work for them.
Q: What drove the decision to expand to Boston? Are you considering any other East Coast hubs for expansion?
A: Boston is the largest market for biotech in the United States, and we had a limited footprint there, so expanding there was an obvious choice for us. We also have customers on the West Coast asking us to come to Boston to deliver the quality services they know us for. Our Boston expansion was led by our acquisition of Novalex, a Boston provider of OnSite services.
As for other expansions, we are looking at more options in Boston, but there are also emerging biotech hubs in New York City, Seattle, LA, New Jersey, and Baltimore. A lot is happening on the East Coast that we know we can add significant value to, and in the coming years, we’ll certainly continue to expand throughout the region.
Q: What do you believe is driving the demand for contract vivarium services? Why do you believe the demand is specifically high for Explora’s facilities?
A: It’s a few things: The need for speed, the need for flexibility, and the need for quality. Those are things that we offer when we build a vivarium that is AAALAC-accredited. We put it near anywhere you’re located, and you can get into the space within a few weeks, as opposed to spending $500 to $1,000 per square foot and taking nine to 12 months to build it. Before you know it, you’ve spent $2 million on a very small, inefficient space and you haven’t even staffed it 24/7/365 yet. In that light, our value proposition is pretty compelling.
I don’t think everybody is equal in this space. We provide a much higher-level, higher-touch service than others may provide in the same area. We solve the problems that small- and medium-sized biotechs have with a significant additional level of care, thought, and scientific input. We’re more than just a facility provider; we provide the Ph.D.-oversight, talent, and skills to get the studies done well, in a manner that is most likely to be repeatable.
Q: What type of company is best suited to the outsourced vivarium model?
A: I’m not sure anyone should build their own vivarium anymore. I don’t think it makes sense in most situations – although many still do and will. I will say with certainty that the fastest uptick is with the small- and medium-sized biotechs that are still doing important discovery and preclinical work; they are probably venture-funded, and probably in a Series A, B, C, or D stage. What they need is “speed-to-data.” They need good, repeatable data to advance their drug, both with the FDA and with their investors, to get more venture money for continuing that research. For those who need fast, clean, repeatable data, using our Vivarium-as-a-Service™ is a straightforward decision. And we can have them ready to initiate studies in as little as two weeks in our facilities.
Q: What does OnDemand Vivarium-as-a-Service™ mean? How has it influenced the preclinical industry?
A: We’ve enabled our clients to accelerate their research because they can start their preclinical program sooner than if they built and staffed their in vivo space themselves. We even provide them the opportunity to do better research because they’re not likely to build an AAALAC-accreditable vivarium when they do it themselves. “Standarding” around high-quality facilities will improve the repeatability of the work.
In terms of flexibility, we tend to see our clients come in and take one room; the next year they might take two rooms; and the year after that they might take a third room. That ability to scale up—or if they have run low in funding, scale down—is essential.
What you’re seeing is that fewer vivariums are being built. For example, in San Diego, where Explora BioLabs has ten facilities, very few clients are building new vivariums because we have a high-quality, research-ready facility pretty much everywhere they might want to go. It makes no sense for them to spend that money and deal with the regulations and labor infrastructure required to run it. It makes more sense for them to use ours and we’re probably next door anyway.
Q: What does OnSite Vivarium-as-a-Service™ mean? How has it influenced the preclinical industry?
A: OnSite clients either have their own vivarium, or Explora BioLabs has just designed and overseen building one for them. We staff it and we provide the equipment, animals, materials, and disposables that are required. We can get research up and running in as little as three weeks with our OnSite services, and we maintain flexibility so that companies can scale the services based on their needs and as the operations evolve. OnSite Vivarium-as-a-Service™ can help keep research on track, and companies don’t have to worry about staff turnover, supply delays, or unforeseen expenses.
Q: Explora also offers contract research services. Why is it important to have those services locally in each market?
A: It’s a crucial part of our entire service offering. Not everybody can do all the work they wish to do; preclinical program appetites often exceed the ability to deliver. Sometimes they have overflow needs, specific skill sets, or a timeline rush where they need to finish a certain amount of work on deadline. So there are lots of reasons why our clients might want us to perform the work instead of doing it themselves. The final and most obvious reason is that many of these companies have small clinical teams of two, three, four people. If you lose one of those people because of a vacation, illness, or to another drug development company, you’ve lost a lot of your capacity to do the work. It’s important for us to be able to quickly supplement that support in each of the markets where we’re present. It allows research to continue, no matter where our clients are. Additionally, clients who want to administer fresh test articles/therapeutic cells, or pick up fresh tissue, can contract with our local research services to eliminate the efficacy, time, and process risks that come with having to freeze, ship, and rederive processes.
Q: Do OnSite clients use your contract research services and OnDemand facilities?
A: OnSite clients will often call us when they want to quickly expand their studies and lack the space, in-house specific experience, or time to run the study on themselves. We understand the need to temporarily expand operations in order to hit crucial deadlines. Our in vivo technicians can quickly step in to assist with activities like dosing and tissue collection. When full study management is needed, our contract research team can set up and run the study end-to-end. If a client wants to expand to a new model and doesn’t have the dedicated space in their facility, they can secure temporary space at one of our facilities nearby, allowing them to retain control of their research. Being able to offer adaptable support from highly experienced staff in each area of our business is fundamental to this whole model of being a bundled high-touch service. It’s what makes us a true extension of our clients’ research teams and not just a facility provider.
Q: How is Explora able to achieve rapid two- to three-week turnaround times to get clients started?
A: Our staff’s level of experience and our thorough processes are key, but you have to also have the capacity available. If all of your facilities are crammed full, there’s nowhere to put new clients or help existing clients scale. The turnaround time begins with having flexibility in our room and rack configurations available for clients to step into quickly.
The second half of it is having a regulatory infrastructure that can move people through critical protocol approvals required for high-quality, ethical animal research. We have an in-house team with significant regulatory experience in IACUC, OLAW, and AAALAC accreditation to provide this service. Clients would never be able to build such a team, and they shouldn’t have to waste valuable funds and time doing so.
Q: Explora talks a lot about a “vivarium network.” Why is that important to emerging and evolving biotechs?
A: The reason it’s important is because these emerging biotechs are growing and moving rapidly. They may not be located in the same place for more than a couple of years. So as their laboratory and office space needs change, the location of their animal facilities may also need to change. However, they don’t want to move their animals in the middle of a research study just because their people need to move to a new office or wet lab. By having a network, we allow them to maintain the continuity of animal research, no matter what happens to their office and laboratories. A client might also hire researchers in a separate location, away from their current vivarium, and choose to have that team run studies in another facility close to them rather than forcing a move. The network equals greater flexibility for clients, a hallmark in every aspect of our services.
Q: What new insights has the COVID pandemic provided you about the Vivarium-as-a-Service™ model that you didn’t have in March 2020?
A: It has validated the importance of biotech and the overall healthcare ecosystem. Many of the clients who are using our vivarium rooms are developing new drugs for cancer and new vaccines. It’s nice to see vaccines coming back into favor as a research area because it was not the place you wanted to be for a long time. The spike in demand for this research requires an increase in capacity for high-quality, experienced resources to support their preclinical in vivo studies. We continue to ensure that our services are aligned to meet that need.
Interested in the services Explora Biolabs can offer your research? Explore Explora’s options at explorabiolabs.com